This post is in time for the CITES Conference of the Parties that commenced in Bangkok this week, convened to discuss wildlife crime. I decided to re-post this NGM feature that really jolted me, as it’s the perfectly crafted investigative report: a bit wry, grim, candid – and just powerful. And on a topic that deserves full attention.
~ Text: Bryan Christy. Photos: Brent Stirton. National Geographic, October 2012 ~
Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. from he air the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene – the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year.
Each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. From the vantage point of history, this killing field is not new at all.
It is timeless, and it is now.
CITES, as administrator of the 1989 global ivory ban, is the world’s official organization standing between the slaughter of the 1980s— in which Africa is said to have lost half its elephants, more than 600,000 in just those ten years —and the extermination of the elephant.
My favourite part:
THE JAPAN EXPERIMENT
In 1989, after ten years during which at least one elephant died every ten minutes, President George H. W. Bush unilaterally banned ivory imports, Kenya burned its 13 tons of ivory stocks, and CITES announced the global ivory ban, which began in 1990. Not all countries agreed to the ban. Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Malawi entered “reservations,” exempting them from it on the grounds that their elephant populations were healthy enough to support trade.
In 1997 CITES held its main meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe declared that elephants took up a lot of space and drank a lot of water. They’d have to pay for their room and board with their ivory.
If Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi is the father of the ivory ban, then Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is the father of its first rupture.
Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia made CITES an offer: They would honor the ivory ban if they were allowed to sell ivory from elephants that had been culled or had died of natural causes.
CITES agreed to a compromise, authorizing a one-time-only “experimental sale” by the three countries to a single purchaser, Japan. In 1999 Japan bought 55 tons of ivory for five million dollars. Almost immediately Japan said it wanted more, and soon China would want legal ivory too.
Before it would allow another ivory sale, CITES demanded the results of the Japan experiment: Had the sale increased crime? Specifically, had elephant poaching or ivory smuggling gone up? To find out, it launched one program to count illegally killed elephants and another to measure ivory smuggling. For a science-based organization, it was an odd way to conduct an experiment.
CITES had approved the sale and had then set about constructing a way to gauge its impact, which is a bit like pushing the button to test the first atomic bomb and then building a device to measure the explosion.
CITES officials refuse to issue a formal estimate of the elephants killed annually for fear that any number, which would derive from 2007 population estimates and limited 2012 poaching data, will “become embedded as hard truth in the public psyche.” Still, they said it is “highly likely” that poachers killed at least 25,000 African elephants in 2011. The true figure may even be double that.
Meanwhile, last year saw an estimated 34.7 tons of illegal ivory seized globally. Using an Interpol rule of thumb that says seized contraband equals 10 percent of actual smuggling, and assuming that each elephant carries 22 pounds of ivory, that weight equates to 31,500 dead elephants. The point is, tens of thousands of elephants were killed last year. And the figures are going up drastically.
To estimate smuggling activity, CITES uses ivory seizures as a proxy, which is tricky. They accurately tell you only the bare minimum of illegal activity going on in a country, and there’s a lot they can’t tell you. More ivory seizures in one year can mean that smuggling has increased, or that law enforcement is working harder, or both. Fewer seizures can mean what you might hope, but they can also mean that law enforcement is on the take. Big-time smugglers have connections in local wildlife departments, customs offices, and freight-forwarding and transportation companies that enable them to move multi-ton shipments from one country to another. Worst of all, a seizures-based system rewards countries for confiscating ivory, when what they really need to do is follow smuggled ivory up the demand chain to the kingpins, a reason good investigators consider seizures to be bad law enforcement.
The Elephant Trade Information System reports had found that China was the single most important reason the illegal ivory trade was increasing. The CITES secretariat therefore refused China’s request to buy ivory. But in February 2012 China made public one of its big ivory-enforcement efforts of 2011, involving 4,497 personnel and 1,094 vehicles and leading to 19 cases. It had resulted in the confiscation of 63.5 pounds of ivory.
In July 2008 the CITES secretariat endorsed China’s request to buy ivory, a decision supported by Traffic and WWF. Member countries agreed, and that fall Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe held auctions at which they collectively sold more than 115 tons of ivory to Chinese and Japanese traders.
That amount confiscated by the Chinese ivory-enforcement – 63.5 pounds – is the weight of an overfed poodle.
Japan is an island nation with a narrow primary use for its ivory: signature stamps called hanko. China shares borders with 14 countries; it has a vast coastline, a booming economy, ten times the population, a separate system for ivory-loving Hong Kong, extensive investment in Africa, and uses for ivory ranging from sculptures to cell phone covers. After Japan bought ivory, China said its smuggling problem went up. Now China itself was entering the ivory business. CITES urged the world not to worry.
And the rest. All of it is amazing.